Watford are left relying on favours once more in their battle for Premier League survival as a Manchester City masterclass humiliated the Hornets at Vicarage Road.
Story of the match
Watford welcomed the former Premier League champions to Vicarage Road in typically bizarre circumstances as the Hornets became the first club in top-flight history to sack three Head Coaches in a single season.
Nigel Pearson had boasted the best win percentage (35%) since Watford were promoted to the Premier League, nearly five years ago but recent defeats to Burnley, Southampton, Chelsea and West Ham United were enough to seal the departure of the former Leicester City manager.
Following the dismissal of Pearson after the defeat to West Ham United, interim head coach, Hayden Mullins made two changes to the side that conceded three goals at the Olympic Stadium on Friday evening. Adrian Mariappa and Roberto Pereyra replaced Adam Masina and Danny Welbeck in an otherwise familiar 4-2-3-1 formation for the hosts.
Manchester City arrived in Hertfordshire reeling from their defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final at the weekend and Pep Guardiola rang the changes. Joao Cancelo, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden all came into a side that had scored 12 goals in the previous three league matches since Manchester City lost away to Southampton in early July.
The only blessing for Watford coming into the game was that the visitors were still without Sergio Aguero, who had scored 11 goals in just 8 appearances against the Hornets.
The first opportunity of the game fell to Will Hughes in the 10th minute as the Watford midfielder volleyed wide from 14 yards, centre-right of Ederson’s goal. The chance seemed to surprise Hughes as much as it surprised everyone else as the midfielder snatched at his shot.
Just 45 seconds later and Ben Foster was airborne up the other end of the pitch to tip Rodri’s deflected shot wide as it looked to loop in off the back of Gabriel Jesus. The Watford goalkeeper leapt athletically to his left to tip the ball over the bar in what was to be the beginning of Manchester City’s first half domination of Watford where the hosts saw just 15% of possession inside the opening 20 minutes.
In the 22nd minute, Cancelo danced his way into the Watford box, playing a one-two with Jesus before seeing his shot blocked by a flailing Craig Dawson.
Manchester City finally took the lead just eight minutes later.
On the half hour mark, Kyle Walker’s wayward cross fell in the box to Raheem Sterling. 12 yards out, Sterling drilled the ball into the top-right corner, leaving Foster helpless, rooted to his line for the Englishman’s 18th goal of the season and his sixth in four games against the Hornets.
in 40th minute, Sterling and Manchester City had their second.
After quick feet from Sterling, the winger invited a stray foot from Will Hughes and duly went to ground under the contact inches inside the box.
Referee, Michael Oliver duly pointed to the penalty spot and whilst Foster initially pulled off a spectacular save to his right, the ball rebounded back to Sterling who tapped in from six yards.
The Manchester City onslaught continued into the second half as Bernardo Silva and Sterling went close within a minute of the restart. However, heroic efforts by Mariappa and Foster kept the deficit temporarily to two.
Manchester City nearly hard their third on the hour mark as a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick stung the gloves of a diving Foster, who was alert again to tip the ball wide for a corner.
A minute later and the visitors did have their three goal lead.
De Bruyne thread the ball through the Watford defence to an onrushing Sterling, looking for his hat-trick. Foster again saved from Sterling but the ball once more rebounded to a Manchester City player as Phil Foden tapped the ball into an empty net from six yards for his fifth goal since the restart.
Watford were four down in the 66th minute as Laporte headed in a delightful De Bruyne free-kick four yards out, leaving Watford disconsolate and praying for the final whistle as De Bruyne notched up his 19th assist of the season.
As the final whistle loomed, Manchester City thought they had hit their fifth of the day and nineteenth against Watford in three matches, but fortunately for the hosts, the linesman’s flag denied Jesus in added time and prevented further humiliation for the hosts who find themselves precariously close to the relegation zone after another chastening defeat.
Takeaways from the match
Sleep-walking to defeat
For most clubs, having 15% possession after 20 minutes would be nothing to shout home about, but, as has been well documented, the Hornets were 5-0 after 18 minutes in September of last year away to Manchester City.
At Vicarage Road this evening, the visitors had managed only one shot on target inside the first 20 minutes, a deflected effort that was spectacularly saved by Ben Foster.
However, Manchester City were only warming up and with a Watford side low on confidence and inviting the visitors to attack, it only reinforced the historic troubles Watford have with Manchester City.
Watford have not defeated the Cityzens since the days of the old Division 2, when Tony Coton led the Hornets to victory in 1989.
Since then, Watford have only picked up points against the visitors under Aidy Boothroyd, with two draws in the 2006/07 season. Watford have since experienced 13 consecutive defeats, conceding 50 goals and scoring only 6.
Watford sleep-walked into defeat once more as Mullins set Watford up defensively and were punished for not taking the game to the visitors.
Danny Welbeck was particularly conspicuous in his absence from the starting line-up. After positive performances against Chelsea, Norwich City and Newcastle United, Welbeck found himself benched as Mullins chose to rely on the experience of Troy Deeney, playing upfront alone.
In the 78th minute, Welbeck, on for a slow and tired Watford Captain, showed his value, sprinting on to a through ball for Watford’s first real chance of the afternoon. However, Ederson was out quickly to smother the ball on the edge of the box.
Welbeck’s pace, alongside Sarr’s, showed the threat Watford possessed but Mullins had opted naively for a compact side that could withstand Sterling and De Bruyne. In doing so, Mullins left Sarr as the only attacking outlet with pace as Deeney was overwhelmed by a fitter and faster Laporte in the City defence.
Watford's inability to retain the ball was duly exposed.
An indication of Watford’s lack of attacking outlets was reinforced by Rodri 65 passes to Watford’s 55 after 50 minutes.
If Watford are to be relegated, it won’t be due to the sacking of three Head Coaches, but the absence of quality in the squad.
What next for Watford?
Watford are without a manager, without a spine and with only one more chance to avoid relegation to the Championship as the sun sets on their hopes of Premier League survival.
Gino Pozzo had foreseen the issues with Nigel Pearson, a strong and divisive character, when the latter was appointed in December of this season, offering a short-term contract with an eye to this summer and Watford’s league standing.
However, after a remarkable turnaround from bottom of the league at Christmas to feint hopes of survival going into the final game of the season, Pozzo found himself in a difficult situation. Stick with Pearson and loosen some control of transfers to appease the fans or twist and find another direction.
After another dismal defeat and some questionable selection choices, Pearson’s fate was sealed but expedited by his ego. Pearson was obstinate in his decisions and with enough foresight to predict this defeat and Arsenal on the horizon, Watford’s hierarchy acted quickly and decisively to remove Pearson and Shakespeare before things got worse.
What happens next is anyone’s guess but Pozzo and Duxbury can be excused for holding the cards close to their chest. After multiple wrong moves and a fanbase losing patience in their style of management, the next move could prove fatal.
Their next move will almost certainly be dictated by Watford’s Premier League fate. However, with Arsenal to play on Sunday and Watford only three points above the relegation places, equal on goal difference with chasers AFC Bournemouth and Aston Villa, you would have to be an eternal optimist to presume Watford’s future looks bright.